From 'love of the game' to Rams' game-winner: Inside the Matthew Stafford-Cooper Kupp pass

TAMPA, Fla. -- Cooper Kupp didn't think he was going to be the hero on the play that set up the winning score, sending the Los Angeles Rams to the NFC Championship Game.

The All-Pro receiver thought he was merely a decoy.

It was one more thing that didn't go as planned for the Rams during a second half in which they lost three fumbles and a 27-3 lead to Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers before escaping Raymond James Stadium with a 30-27 divisional-round win.

Except quarterback Matthew Stafford's 44-yard completion to Kupp, which set up Matt Gay's 30-yard, winning field goal, was a happy accident and not another costly mistake that nearly led to an all-time playoff collapse.

"We call the route that I ran, we call it a 'love of the game' route," Kupp said, "because you're really just trying to draw coverage."

To put it another way: Kupp wasn't supposed to get the ball on that play, so his job is to run his vertical route all out, for the love of the game and for the benefit of whatever teammate is left open underneath thanks to the defender he's occupying deep.

That was the idea anyway. The plan changed when the Bucs, who had the highest blitz rate in the NFL this season, sent what was supposed to be an all-out blitz that left Kupp and the Rams' other three pass-catchers with one-on-one matchups and no help from a deep safety, which is known as zero coverage.

"The route that Cooper's running there ... you're really never getting the ball," Stafford said. "You're just clearing out some area, working for some other routes. They decided to bring everybody and that's really the best option at that point. Felt it after the snap, kind of recognized it was going to be an all-out pressure and was able to put it to a good spot. Coop made a great catch, and then we just clocked it with enough time and Matt [Gay] came in and did his thing, which was awesome."

The Bucs had just tied the game at 27-27 with 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter on a 9-yard Leonard Fournette touchdown run, taking advantage of the short field they got after recovering the Rams' fourth lost fumble of the game.

The Rams began their ensuing drive at their own 25 after an ensuing touchback with one timeout remaining. All the momentum -- not to mention the greatest quarterback in NFL history -- was on the other side. And with Gay having come up short on a 47-yard attempt earlier in the fourth quarter, a miss that Stafford believed was affected by the incoming wind, they had to figure any attempt from that distance or longer would be dicey.

First-and-10 from the Rams' 25: Stafford took a shotgun snap, saw an opening up the middle and immediately took off running. He was sacked for a 1-yard loss, nearly fumbling the ball on his way to the turf. That forced the Rams to use their final timeout to stop the clock with 35 seconds left.

Said Stafford: "The first-down play, I don't know. I was thinking I was going to run it. That was a poor idea."

Second-and-11 from the Rams' 24: Stafford got a clean pocket against a four-man rush and threw toward the left sideline to Kupp, who had gotten by cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting with an inside release, then shook him at the top of his deep out route with a double move. Kupp got out of bounds after his 20-yard catch, stopping the clock with 28 seconds left. The Rams still hurried to the line at coach Sean McVay's urging.

"Cooper did a great job on the second one of winning," Stafford said. "Fought through some contact at the top of his route and did a great job of getting out of bounds. Then we just kind of jumped the ball, which I thought was great. Sean was in my ear telling me, 'Hey, let's go fast. Let's not let them set their pressure, whatever it is.' They decided to bring the house and go to zero."

First-and-10 from the Rams' 44: With Ndamukong Suh bearing down on him and Murphy-Bunting also approaching on a blitz off the edge, Stafford stood tall in the pocket and threw deep to Kupp, who won his one-on-one matchup with safety Antoine Winfield Jr. Stafford's pass traveled 46.7 yards in the air, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, even though he didn't fully step into the throw. Kupp hauled it in and carried it to the Tampa Bay 12 before being tackled by Winfield. Stafford and the Rams raced to the ball to spike it with five seconds left, setting up Gay's game winner.

Bucs coach Bruce Arians did not second-guess the decision to call an all-out blitz and said not all of Tampa Bay's defenders got the playcall.

The field goal capped the 43rd winning drive in the fourth quarter or overtime of Stafford's career, the most in the NFL since he entered the league in 2009. The 42 that preceded it were in the regular season, as Stafford was winless in his three trips to the playoffs during his first 12 seasons with the Detroit Lions.

"It means a lot," Stafford said of pulling out a late win in the playoffs. "That's a lot of hard work for a lot of years going into a short amount of time. A lot of hard work this year, too, with some great teammates. That's the thing I've loved and I've really appreciated [in] being a part of this team is how many guys we have pulling the rope in the right direction, doing everything they can to be prepared for those moments.

"Like I said, that's the last guy that I would have thought would have gotten that ball before the snap was snapped. He was ready, he was running and he made a great play."